Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Ceremonial village of Orongo

Our final site left to visit is not known for its giant moai but is really the final setting for the Rapa Nui culture. The village of Orongo was built in the late 17th century on the crater's rim at Ranu Kau, at the point where a 250 meter sea cliff converges with the inner wall of the crater. Around this period, island society stopped building the monolithic stone carvings of the ahu and moai and of practicing their old religion of ancestor worship and replaced it with a cult dedicated to honoring the Make Make god and more commonly referred to now as “The Birdman Cult”. Orongo is believed to have been a ceremonial center for the birdman cult and it was used for a few weeks of the year every spring for an annual ritual known as “Tangata-Manu”. For a period of about 200 years the tribal chiefs (or their representative) practiced ancient rights and tests of skill. Most famous was the spring ritual of Tangata-Manu whereby contestants would scale down the sheer cliffs of Orongo, swim to the off shore islet of Motu Nui and then fast on the island waiting for the first manutara (sooty tern) to lay her eggs. Having procured an egg, the contestant swam back and he (or his chief) was declared birdman (Tangata-Manu) for that year, an important status position in which special rights and privileges were granted them. The last competition took place around 1867. One of the most sacred places at Orongo is called Mata Ngarau, where priests chanted and prayed for success in this annual egg hunt contest. However, due to the spread of Christianity less and less locals used Orongo until it was finally abandoned in the mid 19th century. Through the 1970’s, restoration work was completed by William Mulloy (of Ahu Akivi and Tahai fame) together with Chileans Claudio Cristino and Patricia Vargas and now Orongo has World Heritage status as part of Rapa Nui National Park. The restored village now consists of 54 houses built from stone slabs and their design looks similar to those of hare-vaka (boathouses), prevalent though unrestored in the rest of the island. One of the most famous motifs on Easter Island is that of the Birdman and the rocks at Orongo are carved with hundreds of petroglyphs of this half man/half bird figure. Although history tells us that statue building was overtaken by the birdman cult there are ties between the two. In one of the houses at Orongo, an 8' high moai named Hoa Hakananai’a, complete with a loin cloth bas relief carved on it was found in 1968. Unlike other moai, this one is built from basalt, the hardest rock found on Easter Island and carved into the moai body were petroglyphs of the birdman and other symbols of birdman rituals. So it appears that the two groups had somehow come to terms with the differing beliefs that were present on the island. That same year, the crew of HMS Topaze removed Hoa Hakananai'a from ‘Orongo and this unusual rare basalt moai is now on display at the British Museum in London. Walking around the ceremonial site, history and tradition seem to seep through my bones and all the while the Pacific Ocean pounds against the cliff below us providing beautiful views of the nearby islets including Motu Nui. However it is not until we got to the very top of the trail that you see the whole picture. And what a sight it is. The giant panorama stretched out before us. Ahead of us to the west, the Pacific Ocean is endless contributing to the illusion that Easter Island truly is “in the middle of nowhere”. To our right is a crater with a large lake and marsh reeds dot the floor of the crater. Birds are riding the thermals along the lush green walls and the wind threatens to lift us up and over the edge at any moment. Orongo, like much of Easter Island is simply magical. As a side note, Orongo like Rano Raraku is in a fragile state and to attempt to preserve and protect the fragility of the area; visitors are only allowed to visit one time.

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